Irish Mountain
Running Association

Wicklow Way Race


Clare KeeleyJohn CondonAoife O'DonnellBarry Murray

Clare Keeley Dare to Dream. The Story of Solo.

I am sitting here in front of a blank screen. Lost for words (which very rarely happens to me!) Today it is as if I have an ache in my heart, not necessarily because it is all over, more for thinking about what it brings to you beforehand, of course during the race and then especially, all that it means to you after. Solo…slowly sinking in……

Part of me wants to just write FOR GODS SAKE!!!FOLLOW YOUR DREAMS!!! The end.
But then you wouldn’t get to hear about the dark and the deer and the farm gates and fly’s in eyes and stingy bums and near sprint finish so I’ll keep going.

20 years ago my mum gave me a little postcard that read ‘Dare to Dream’ when I got accepted into nursing college. I have kept that card with me always and since my story of the Wicklow Way Solo started May last year with what was a dream became a reality last Saturday evening in Clonegal, Co Carlow.
Last year I was part of a team running the Wicklow Way Relay, I was doing Leg 8, Cookoo lane to Shillelagh. As I waited for my team mate and friend Padraig to come through from leg 7 I watched some of the solo runners go by. As I passed Paul Mcgurrell along the mucky cow path after Cookoo lane, he said ‘well done’, I said ‘well done’ and there and then I decided I am doing that next year. There was something about these runners that just sucked me right in, the inner focus, the suffering, the determination, the distance. God I was hooked!
I whispered to Padraig a couple of days later at training “I really want to do that solo” We had a little chat, Padraig was interested too. “It is I27 km’s in total” I tell him. Padraig asks “how long have you got to do it?” “21 hours” I say. “Not too bad so “says Padraig. We both laughed. And so began the quiet journey of daring to dream and going for the solo.
It wasn’t until after the Vartry 50 mile race in early April that I committed fully physically to the solo, mentally I had been preparing since I saw those runners at Cookoo Lane the previous May. Physically there was work to be done! The week after Vartry I just thought I have zero idea how to train for this race like not an iota, zip,nada.

Hello Don Hannon of Trailheads….HELP ME!! PLEASE?! QUICKLY!

An 8 week program was hatched, it wasn’t too crazy, achievable (mostly) and probably the most adventuress and rewarding training I have ever done. I loved every minute of it even the days when I had been to work, then hastily dropping my girls to their club on a Wednesday, bombing off in my gear up the hills 10 miles of speed training and arriving back to collect them with the reddest sweatiest face not to mention fuzziest hair, they were embarrassed I was collecting them, they told me so. Everytime.
Long runs were up on the course when we could, early starts on Saturday mornings, me and Padraig could be found in Glendalough at 6.45 am with a run out and back to near Ironbridge, the most memorable was the overnight crossing myself and Lillian Deegan did from Marely to Glenmalure. Oh ho ho it was fun! Failing head lights on the side of Djouce (me), trips and falls (me), sickie tummy (Lillian) but we made it to Glenmalure for 7am and were better stronger chicks for the experience. We had breakfast in the Glenmalure Lodge with Don after, we chatted about cut-off times and race plans. I told Don my plan, he just said calmly “not good enough Clare, you won’t make it”. I decided this is serious and this is business. Actually Don I am going to make it!

Race day….. At last. Finally. Thank you.

I worked the morning of the race, I was really busy, which probably worked out better. Home to a bit of ordering children and husband around (surely I’m entitled to on race day?!?). By 6.30pm I waved them off to their Nana’s in Greystones shouting “see you on the other side in Carlow!!” And aimed to be lying on my bed by 7pm. For once in my life I was actually organised for a race and I had drop bags sorted and gear ready. Jacket, hat, gloves, map, compass, whistle, long pants, phone charged and a weeks’ worth of food shopping in my drop bags. I lay on the bed at 7 and listened to a relaxation thing on you tube (they are becoming my pre-race essential). I don’t think I actually slept but I looked at the clock and it was 8.10pm and I felt really relaxed. Up at 8.45 for dinner. Make a few sambos, 3 lots tuna, one with peppers, one peanut butter. Ultra is about looking forward to the little things!
Marley Park, I was not nervous, I just want to get started, part of me was sick of thinking of cut offs and distances and this and that. I was ready just to go.
Met with Don and fellow Trailheads, there is a quiet buzz in the air, chat of how fantastic the weather is, how we couldn’t be any luckier. I had written out a little breakdown of when I had hoped to get to each checkpoint but I just couldn’t figure out how to break it down even smaller as Don had suggested. He took off with my sheet and came back 3 minutes later with smaller in-between points to get to. Get to Glendalough by 6.30am and you don’t need to worry about the rest of the day. Don just knows his stuff and these little points were my key to getting my pace right and seeing the day through.

Marley Park to Crone Woods. 13.67 miles. 3 hour cut off.

So good to get going, no need for head lamp yet. Warm weather, no gloves or hats, just a jacket and a t-shirt underneath, shorts and compression socks. Perfect. Garmin there for time only, not switched on for pace or miles tonight, I wanted to run relaxed and never think of miles, it is just too far and too long a day. Right get to Glencullen Road for 1.10am. Head lamp on up along towards Three Rock, first of many trips. Rule Number 1 Padraig if you are going to stop and fix your sock tell me!! (I looked back and caught a rock at same time!) Glencullen Road bang on 1.10am, Don there in the minibus with his gorgeous daughter Ellie encouraging us and confirming we are spot on time. Right lets getting eating all this food, bar, gel and water. Next point was Curttlestown Wood, one hour to get there, bang on, Don and Ellie again! Down to the Glencree River and up the track to Crone, pushed it along here to get to Crone in the time that I wanted. Spot on again 2.40am, first official checkpoint and 20 minutes ahead of official cut-off and the tightest cut-off of the night. Shout out my number, grab my drop bag of food (sandwiches, gel, bar, lucozade more water) and get going up through Crone Woods. Oh Hello Don, there you are again!! Amazing! Hitting the little cut-offs along the way just gives you this little confidence that pace is exactly as you want it, I have a pace that I can kinda go forever and I was settling into it nicely.
Crone Woods to Glendalough. 18.02 miles and a 5 hour cut off.
I knew the next few miles are mostly climbing up and I just hiked as fast as I could and eating on the ups. Where are all the deer?? I had seen so many out the night myself and Lillian crossed over but just too much activity on the hills tonight and they had skedaddled off. Up Powerscourt ridge, Padraig points out that you could actually go over the edge, yes I know! Glad of the bright head lamps, eh! Up and down Maulin and the magic of the night becoming so present as we watch this most beautiful stream of head lamps make their way up along the shoulder of Djouce. We start passing out runners on Djouce, I wanted to get to the boardwalk ahead as it is single track and super runnable. Another fall, thud, up as fast a lightening, quick peak at shin, lovely dent in skin no blood Padraig, let’s go but god my shin was sore and my hip that I wacked too.
Shushhhh, there is the first bird chirp of the day, did you hear it? A new day is dawning and it’s quite special to witness the sun rise. Head lamps in the bag, no longer needed. Down towards Roundwood and on to a bit of road, a welcome relief for a while for a bit of a roadrunner like me! Don and Ellie again in the minibus wrapped in fleecy blankets, I really did not know that we would see them all night and all day. Incredible passion and commitment to his runners, I was really impressed.
There is forest and fields and then a bit of road along the way to Glendalough, we just ran and ate, more bars, more gels, more lucozade, more water, back up on to the trails heading for Paddock Hill and eventually the drop down to Glendalough, pretty much bang on 6.30am. Official checkpoint 2, an hour and a half ahead of cut off. Good Morning Don and Ellie! They shout to go check in and come back to minibus, thanks but no thanks, we going to keep moving, grab the drop bags and go. God this is great craic!

Glendalough to Ironbridge 17.31 miles and a 4 hour cut off.

Glendalough in one word? Up.
Up, up, up and more up. 1hr and 20 mins of hiking….up. Eat sandwiches, eat pack of crisps, eat half a bar and drink coke, take a wee. Resolved to going up. And then the decent into the Glenmalure Valley. As much as down is good, this section of down is hard on my feet, the forest road has a tough hard-core and I know I am ready to get out of my trail runners and into my slippers soon (road runners!!).
Drumgoff . The first of only two times I knew exactly where I was in terms of miles, half way, 40 miles done, JUST 40 to go! Blue mini-bus waiting as the trail hits the tarmac road just before the Glenmalure Hotel, Don, Donna, Ellie, and Liam Vines (I think). I feel really excited as I feel totally fine and tell them I just LOVE this! Don puts his two hands on my shoulders and tells me 1st lady is 14 minutes ahead, she was futher but I am closing in and just keep doing what I am doing. I knew I was second lady but I wasn’t going to ask until Ironbridge what the splits were. Part of me is excited but there is still nearly 9 hours of running ahead, that’s all going according to plan.
I had hidden my road runners, fresh top, wipes, deodorant and sun cap in a plastic bag in the woods overnight oh and more food. This half way point signified a new day, to me nearly a new race and I freshen up fast and off we went up the hill…eating again! I don’t know much of this section really and I don’t remember much of it either. I phoned my husband and girls when we eventually got reception just to check in with them and phoned Amy who was to meet me at Dying Cow just to say we were on track time wise. All I remember was it was starting to get warm and I said to Padraig, oh no it looks like the sun is going to come out! Please not the sun!
Down the scrubby track into Ironbridge arriving like a grand-prix car into the pit stop, quick, shout number, grab drop bag, take two neurofen, Liam Vines opens my sandwiches for me. Well done on your recent Round Liam! Assistant race director Robbie is here cooking sausages like how cool is that?! Sure I’ll take one of them too. Dump empty bottles and gel wrappers, crisps packets, bar wrappers, I swear, I must be the only person who can manage to put on weight while running an ultra! In the blink of an eye Padraig has managed to change his runners and t-shirt. Don says work harder Clare. I tell him no not until the Dying Cow.

Ironbridge to Dying Cow. 13.1 miles. 4 hour cut off.

This section is notoriously long and we decide to stick on the music for a while so we both plug in the earphones and run alongside. I barley spoke to Padraig for the next 3 hours! It was along this section that the reality of the day started to dawn on me and this huge feeling of pride for seeing a dream through. I say to Padraig, last year we spoke of this, here we are doing it, like right now over half way through it, feeling great, I was munching on a packet of Tayto and drinking coke and it was like being out on a night out! At one point the sun was shining, music in the ears, pace great and I just thought BEST DAY OF MY LIFE.
Along this section we encountered I don’t know how many farm gates and styles to climb and jump over and then eventually the drop down to cross the Derry River and over the road to Cookoo Lane. Hi there Don, Donna and Ellie! Don says you got to get working Clare and I tell him I will soon. I know we are now only 3 miles or so from the 100k point and I am looking forward to seeing Amy my friend who will run with me to the finish. I am still moving at my go forever pace and feel fine, I can feel a little ache in my left hip (a niggle that stopped me running at Christmas time, nothing crazy just muscles too tight) and I know once I push it may get worse, I am cautious, maybe too much, but this distance is new to me and I don’t really know what this body of mine can really do. Don trusted it, I didn’t. I’ll learn to trust it more.
I have always said, this has to be enjoyable, I put so much effort to get out training, up at 6am, making school lunches, running miles then in the door, get girls ready for school and then into work myself. Up at 5.30 am on Saturday mornings to go run 30 miles and days off work to run 40 miles that it has to be enjoyable, hard work yes but not killer, shit stuff (like a fast 10k ha ha!).

Dying Cow to Raheenakit 6.9 miles and 2.30 hours cut off.

In and out of Dying Cow check point, no stopping at all only to grab my drop bag of more food, all I wanted was fruit. Myself and Padraig part at this point. Jean has arrived to join him to the finish. Amy is ready, full of beans and rearing to get my ass to Carlow. I have never had a pacer before and I didn’t think I would need or want one but I see now how it can work so well. Amy was a fresh face (Sorry Padraig!) and we run a lot together so she knows me. We hike up the hill out of the Dying Cow and I am gushing about what a fantastic day and night we have had and chomping on the fruit, the next down-hill is business. Amy says a prayer out loud before we really get going. Linda 1st lady is 26 mins ahead and the plan is to close the gap. I put on my ear phones and off we go.
The next 30 kms are full of emotions, hysteria, pain, laughter, relief and frustration, running and racing. We hike the up hills and run as fast as I can after 100k on the flats and downs.
We laugh as I pour water down my shorts at the back, my bum is starting to get stingy, ahh the relief! There is a certain amount of maintenance involved with Vaseline which I had failed to do for ages and weeing in the woods for now near on 15 hours has its draw backs!
I take more neurofen as the hip is starting to be more a pain in the ass than the pain in the ass and off we go again. How the hell did I forget about that steep hill up to Raheenakit, how?? I am out of breath walking up the hill and it’s just so warm, I think I am starting to get tired and I throw an entire bottle of water on my head.
My good friend from work Oonagh is at Raheenakit and we hug, I tell her I am mankey and smelly, a quick introduction to Amy, I say sorry that we can’t chat but we have to keep moving, check in with Michael Myer who tells us Linda is 5 mins ahead.

Raheenakit to Clonegal. 10 miles. 2 hrs 30 mins cut off.

I am beyond looking at my little check point chart at this stage, I know I am moving faster than I ever thought I would. We follow the detour in Raheenakit and then back on to the original Wicklow way trail, I welcome the ups so that we can hike and I get a rest! Still eating, more bars and gels, I can’t face my peanut butter sandwiches at this stage and I was looking forward to them all day!
I get a fly in my eye and we stop and Amy nearly takes my eye out getting it out! Off we go again! Then I get another fly in the other eye and it did one of those wee things where it stings the shit out of your eye and I am shouting “ahhhhh my eye, my eye” and we are hopping around the woods, I grab my bottle of water, hold open my eyelid and just squirt as much water at force at my eye, blinded and soaked, off we go again.
And then we see Linda. Oh my god Amy I can’t do this, I can’t race this for 10 more miles. We shoot past and run as fast as I can. Down the hill we went afraid to look over my shoulder, for a minute or two no sign but then Linda appears and I say well done Linda as she shoots past us. I tell Amy I have to calm it down and that I am not running my race, I feel a little panicky and not in control of anything, my breathing, my pace, my head. Amy is great and calms me down and says right let’s bring this back to you and off we go again.
I take a gel and lucozade for some sugar to get this race done and we enter the last forest section. I am now trying to rub Tiger Balm on the side of my bum as the pain is terrible from the hip and is pinching everytime I bang my foot to the ground. Amy is offering to rub out my bum but even in all the despair I decline! Don is now ringing Amy asking where am I and that I need to be ready for a sprint finish. Fuck!!
Out of the woods and Don is there telling me to go for it, the road is my strength, how much do you want this Clare?? I don’t know actually!
I run and run, there are only 3 miles left to Clonegal and then I stop, hands on knees and I tell Amy I can’t, I can’t do this. I can’t believe this day has come to this, racing to the finish. We go again and then there is the sign Clonegal 3k. I can see Linda ahead and I know that I will not catch her. I tell Amy that Linda is amazing, what a runner and I am so happy to come in 2nd to her, at this point I just want to run to get a smashing time myself. My Plan A best time possible was 18 hours and I was well ahead of that. Brian and the girls appear in the car, windows down shouting out, they turn and come by again, Brian who never gets animated about anything running is shouting out the window “I can’t believe you are doing this!!!” and off they speed. God he needs to get his exhaust fixed I say to Amy!
“Welcome to Clonegal”, the infamous green sign, I can see the shop that is across the road from the finish and I run as fast as I can, its like total tunnel vision, I can’t see anyone’s faces, focus and exhaustion all rolled into one. Around the corner and hit the board.
17 hours and 31 minutes and what turned out to be 11th runner overall, blown away by the achievement. I congratulate Linda on what was a smashing race, hey we showed the lads how it can be done! Donna Mc Loughlin tells me this is a two time race, you have to do it again with what you learnt today, even at that point I decided I would be back next year if I can.
And so the next day life goes on, Brian leaves for work at 7am and it is me and the girls, I had promised them Mc Donalds breakfast so I beg for a coffee to be brought to me in bed and I take two neurofen and take the plunge to get out of bed. I can walk…yeahhh! I didn’t lose any toenails…yeahhhh! I have a lovely bloody gash and bruises on my hip and shin from the fall on Djouce…yeah!! I am alive!
I work on the fringes of these wonderful mountains, hills, forest trails and tracks, when I am up in Conary (Avoca) on a clear day I can see all of the mountains and the hills I travelled, the ones I made mine. On Monday and Thursdays I call to clients near Glenmalure, this Thursday I sat in my car in the sun and just gazed at Drumgoff, belief, dis-belief and a longing to go back, that ache in my heart that says follow your dream and your passions.
I made it.

Wicklow Way Solo 2015

A balmy June evening saw 40 hardy souls meet up in Marley Park for the Wicklow Way Solo. I'd be lying if I said the nerves weren't kicking in on the way in but there was a distinct calmness at the sign-in and gear check. After Jeff had ensured all required items were good there was nothing left to do but wait.

My wife, Sarah, who was to crew for me the next day, had come along to see us off. "How do you feel?" she asked, "About as good as I'm going to for the next 19 hours" I replied, not lying.

Jeff said his piece and at 12 on the dot we were off. The run through Marley was quite pleasant, as had been suggested by Barry Murray, we all ran as a group until we hit the gates. At this point I was thanking the weather gods for giving us such a fine evening, but it was warm. I'd disposed of the base layer before we'd started but was still wearing a long sleeve and waterproof jacket. The jacket was ditched at the first opportunity at Kilmashogue.

Feeling decidedly cooler, I was now able to relax a bit and get into my stride. It was at this point, on the climb up to Fairy Castle I got talking to a fellow runner, Shay Byrne. Like myself, Shay had run a few Art O'Neills so on this subject and all things running we got chatting. Before we knew it we'd hit the Glencullen Road, this pairing of Shay and I was to endure for the remainder of the race. Cheered on by Don Hannon (Don and his crew would become a regular and welcome sight along the route throughout the night and next day as there were a few Trailheads running) we hit Glencullen Bridge at a canter.

The climb out of Glencullen was pretty uneventful and within no time we'd hit the granite steps above Curtlestown. I'd sprained my ankle here last year at the Wicklow Way Ultra so I took it handy enough on the descent. Hitting the fire-road I settled into a steady pace. My plan was to reach the first checkpoint at Crone by 2.30 and I was pretty much on target

Here's where I was confronted with a mini crisis. There's a small technical descent in Lackan Woods and it was at this point my head torch started acting up. Needless to say one or two salty words were uttered. Between Shay's torch and my own blinking xxx I was able to navigate my way along the Glencree river. We reached Crone a little before 2.40. A bit behind time wise but thankfully in one piece.

After a quick pit-stop we were off again. Steady pace up to the ridge the the steep descent to the Dargle where we were greeted by a very enthusiastic French supporter. We were joined by Paul Daly a while on the climb up towards Djouce. Paul went on to have a fantastic run this year. Thankfully, once we hit the sleepers it was beginning to get bright so the head-torch could finally be ditched. It was at this point my stomach though, that my stomach started acting up a bit and so it would continue to for the rest if the race. Nothing too serious, but enough to feel a light shade of queasy.

Onwards to Oldbridge, stomach issues aside, the legs were feeling really good here. Myself and Shay maintained a good pace. A good clip from Paddock Hill to Glendalough in the company of the lovely Liilian Deegan. Spirits were high as we arrived at the second checkpoint. Wasn't able to get much food into me here and what I did just sat in my stomach. Not good.

It took a while to get going here. The long drag up to Mullacor seemed endless. Thankfully the descent into Drumgoff gave us the opportunity to open it up and hit a maintain a decent pace down to the crossroads? We were both feeling good and were greeted by Liam Vines and Don, also, this was the first point I'd arranged to meet Sarah and her sister, Amanda. (It was their first time crewing so I don't think they knew what they knew to expect when they met us.) It's also the halfway point so psychologically you feel like the job is nearly done, well, only another 64kms to go. I wolfed down a hand full of blueberries, a nice change and without much ado, we were off.

The little climb out of Glenmalure seemed a lot steeper than previous visits but thankfully the muddy climb towards Slieve Maan was dry underfoot. I had to make a quick pit stop here as I could feel a hot-spot on the ball of my foot. I was delighted to see Sarah had parked up on the road as it gave me the opportunity to change my footwear. After wearing the Inov8s for 70 odd kilometres, Mizunos made a welcome change. I was able to a manage a small bit of a ham sandwich, conscious of the fact that I hadn't had much to eat since Crone. My stomach didn't welcome it though. The top of the climb up to Carrickashane is a mental milestone, you've pretty much broken the back of the race here and its a grand run down to Ironbridge.

Mick was manning this checkpoint and after signing in we were offered one of Robbie's sausage and bacon sandwiches. Yum. Before long we were off again. This section of the Way was the toughest. A long drag up around Sheilstown, then you hit the endless road to Moyne. It was also beginning to get very warm. We met Sarah and Amanda down at the ford. If I'm honest, I was feeling fairly fried here. Got some liquid and a bit of chocolate into me and then off. Shay was feeling good and was keeping the spirits up and by the time we reached Mangans Wood I was feeling good again.

I was unfamiliar with the route beyond Muskeagh and was glad to reach the Dying Cow. At this point I knew I was going to finish. In what state though, I didn't know. On arrival at the the pub Sarah handed myself and Shay a bottle of beer each. Well this was a first. I wasn't going to argue so down it went. She told me that it would settle my stomach. (for the record, it was one of the nicest beers I ever had, hat tip to Don). I had a small tub of jelly to eat and felt good to go. Shay had arranged to meet some if his mates here as they were going to be his pacers for the last stage of the race.

At this point it's just a question of putting the head down and grinding it out. Mentally exhausted, physically knackered, but knowing that I had it in me to finish it was enough to keep me going. By the way, it lovely to see one of the locals set up an unofficial aid station after Stranakelly. It was also great to have the lads pacing us as well, they really kept us going with the banter. This stretch before Raheenakit forest is pretty uneventful, then you hit coronary hill. No doubt named after the fact that you have one when you see what you have to climb. "Don't look up, just keep moving" yelled Shay. Wise words, before long we'd reached the top and were greeted by the cheerful Michael Myer at the last checkpoint. Due to some felling the route had to be altered slightly and after been given directions by Michael we were on the home stretch. We said our goodbyes to the lads who'd been pacing us and off we went.

Suffice to say, Raheenakit forest is without doubt the least inspiring woodland I'd ever entered and was glad to leave it behind. At this stage, trying to run the downhills was tough for the both of us because of blistered feet. We'd been on the go for about 18 hours so the feet had gotten a good hammering. Back onto the the road for a few kilometres then up into woods around Moylisha Hill. This is where it fell to pieces. As we were running my foot came down awkwardly on a rock. The pain in was intense. Off came the sock. The blisters on the sole of my foot had burst. Back up and moving, I could barely walk, it was excruciating. Another of Shay's mates, Fergus, had come up to pace us into Clonegal. Within a minute or so of meeting the poor lad I was literally on my hands and knees getting sick. My stomach had had it. After all the gels and other bits of crap I'd been loading into it, it had said enough. After a few encores I was ready to move again. Funnily, I felt a whole lot better, and without a word we all started running, we were so close at this stage and just wanted to finish.

Sarah had come up ways from the forest exit with a look of panic on her face. WTF I thought to myself. "You're going to freak out, but it's another 5 miles to the finish." Thankfully Robbie was there to reassure us that it was indeed just 5km, but my god it felt like 10. All I wanted to do was sleep, Shay didn't disagree with me. In and in we trudged, rounded a bend, and there it was, the finish.

All the family was there and as we approached the sign it was only right that we hit it at the same time. Wicklow Way...done. Handshakes, smiles, photos and utter exhaustion but underneath it all, a massive sense if pride at what we'd just done.

The Wicklow Way Solo is anything but a 'solo' The support along the way was incredible. The volunteers giving up their time to help out. Jeff and Robbie for their enthusiasm and organisation,. Thank you all. I had a fantastic crew in Sarah and Amanda, they were brilliant, and a great running mate. Good in ya Shay "one foot in front of the other buddy'

I'd been looking forward to this for months, injury last year put paid to a

Aoife O'Donnell Race Report

Wicklow Way Solo 127km 2015

As your mind dances between dreams and consciousness you find yourself in a space that is unconcerned with what happened yesterday, right now or in the future. Your eyes fight the light that beams through a narrow slit in the tightly drawn curtains, the only barrier standing between you and responsibility. As your eyelashes shield you from the impending day, a sudden rush of energy jolts you into the present. You’ve finally arrived at race day. Nope not park run race day…big boy race day! The one where you’ve bribed your friends and family into stalking you with a car full of food and drinks for many, many hours. God my lot are a very tolerant bunch. If I was one of the other members of my family I would probably be praying several novenas that Aoife would find pleasure in baking ginger-bread men or knitting sweaters for her cats.

Now I’m definitely not ruling out cat sweater knitting because frankly that’s just awesome, but every now and again sweater knitting and baking just ain’t gonna cut it in the entertainment stakes. So a few months back when the devil was making work for idle hands, I signed myself up for the Wicklow Way Solo 127km race. It was a race that was on my mind for the past two years and having in the past become a little preoccupied with racing, racing and more racing, I decided this year to really only choose ones with a concept that really intrigued me. This one ticked all the boxes: ultra distance, trail, mountains, point to point and was just generally badass. I mean, who doesn’t want to try to run the most famous trail in Ireland, one that takes most people a week to hike, but we had been given just 21 hours to finish. Oh and you have to start in the pitch dark at midnight too. It was safe to say the comfort zone was being sufficiently stepped out of but hey, this was only registration time.

Fast forward two months and there we were standing at the official start of the Wicklow Way. Reconnaissance was complete, goals had been drawn up and now it was time to put your money where your mouth is. Forty plus souls waited with anticipation for the off. Having run in the Wicklow mountains on countless occasions in the past, I was certain the weather would be unpredictable. I generally tend to err on the side of being too warm on the hills due to my first ever experience running the Wicklow Way 50km in 2013. That was not only my first trail race, but also my first time ever actually running on trail, and anyone who bore witness to the f*ckdom that were the conditions of that particular race that year, will understand why I was standing in Marlay Park in the middle of summer wrapped up like a snowman.

Without any fuss or furore the race director unleashed his ultra babies out into the big bad world at the stroke of midnight. A small bottle-neck occurred as we hopped the wall to get onto the first path out of the park. This was a chance to laugh and chat about what we were embarking upon. It was agreed before the race that all runners would stay together until we left the grounds of the park and then it was every person for themselves. The cut offs along the route were fairly generous, but every runner knew the first one was a little tight, so you didn't want to be faffing about or you would have most definitely gotten cut only three hours into the race at Crone Woods. So that dreaded thought fuelled the proverbial match under most runners butts as they hurdled through the gates and out into the night on the first 22km stretch.

Having crossed under the M50 motorway, we quickly hit the first uphill out of Kilmashogue. My decision to dress like a contender for the North Pole marathon was quickly becoming less than desirable and I knew my damn shorts were taking a nice little nap in the back of my crew car, not due to meet me until about ten hours later at Iron Bridge. I hadn’t worn long running tights in months and months so why did I decide that tonight was the perfect night. I wrestled with my jacket and camel bak while quickly hiking uphill, shoving it down to the bottom of the bag never to be seen again during the entire race. The weather was unusually hot and humid. Remember, this is Ireland, the words ‘hot’ and ‘humid’ are an extreme rarity in our vocabulary. The stillness in the air was reflected in the quietness of the cavalcade marching up the mountain.

My fellow runner Paul Croke and I had agreed to run together for much of the race and cruised into Crone Woods at 2:35am. We grabbed a quick banana and some fresh water and swiftly began the next leg to Glendalough. We had over five hours to get there which was more than enough as long as things stayed together. Here begins the most challenging segment of the race as each runner rises up over the hills towards Djouce. I have crossed this section many times in other races and in training, but it never fails to make me wonder what it has in store for me. In the past I have been blown in to the air and off the trail, fell flat on my face in to snow and bog, got caught in a white out and almost cracked my neck on the holes in the wooden boards. Tonight was different. A slight breeze cooled our faces as we navigated our way through the dry, grassy hills. As I looked behind I could see my peers, a stream of glowing ants weaving and winding through the night. The lights of Dublin city in the distance turned the night sky a shade of illuminous pink. I imagined what 1.3 million people might be doing down there in our capital right at that moment. Most were sleeping, some were partying and maybe someone was looking right back at us and wondering what secrets the mountains were withholding that night. Djouce soon became a distant memory as we moved swiftly away. Concentration was at an all time high as we followed the boardwalk for several miles. I decided to turn off my head lamp as my surroundings became more visible but I was already missing the night time.

I’m not sure if it was slight anxiety or feeling a little over heated but the food I had had for dinner was threatening to opt out of this race very early on. I kept it down but knew if I was to maintain my fuel intake I would have to find a way to settle it down. Enter stage right, nurse Lillian with the Motillium. She assured me this would do the job and within an hour or so I had come right. I was able to begin chomping down on snickers and cashews, every bite translating itself into miles. Bank now or pay later!

Paul and I continued our journey towards Glendalough, the day had well and truly broken and we found ourselves on top of Paddock Hill surrounded by a herd of horses. This was the kind of surreal happening that you really had to be there for. These cheeky fellas were everywhere and they clearly hadn’t gotten the trail etiquette memo and were blocking our way. We joked about taking two of them and heading all the way to the finish on them. These horses were sure to know a short cut or two. They abruptly scattered across the mountain as we trotted along under our own power. Facing us was a joyous downhill stretch all the way towards Laragh. This was most definitely what they call frolicking. We were one singing nun and seven Austrian children short of a Sound of Music sequel, and that childlike energy carried us all the way to checkpoint two.

It was about 6:30am and we had the whole of Glendalough to ourselves. Normally over run with tourists, this was the type of ambiance that Beyonce and Jay-Z would have to pay hundreds of thousands of euro to lock this place down, but here we were, just a handful of hungry and thirsty runners having the most private picnic of our lives, in the most famous outdoor area in Ireland. It was so peaceful. I tended to a small blister and rebooted for the next leg of the journey, and with a quick bum smack from our beloved Donna we were headed to Iron Bridge.

I think what drove me to get through the next leg was honestly knowing I could finally change out of my ‘Arctic' weather gear. As the sun began to shine through the clouds I decided that enough was enough and stripped down to my sports bra and reflective vest. At least one half of my body could breathe. Not the most noteworthy stretch, it is mainly an uphill battle for 9km out of Glendalough followed by long downhills. Eventually this fire road takes you all the way to the half way point at Glenmalure. All I could think of was my friend Juju Jay’s photo which he had taken a number of weeks back featuring that hottie from Vikings outside the Glenmalure lodge. I was imagining the hot viking still sitting there with his pint ready to give me my half way point kiss, but the bastard didn’t show. Guess some dudes are harder to impress than others. Anyway, I knew there was at least three people waiting for me at Iron Bridge so I put the pedal down and cruised all the way there. I was feeling on top form and all traces of nausea had been eradicated. With some precision Swiss style time-keeping I had arrived at the 80km point at 10:40am, exactly as I had written in my crew brief.

I flung off my trail shoes to find a family of blisters hitch hiking on my heels. I sealed the suckers up with some Compeed, switched to road shoes and shorts, and shoved as much food and drinks as possible down my mouth. At one point I had a mixture of yogurt, pot noodle and Lucozade swirling around my mouth and with a wince I got it down the hatch. Most of the runners who were behind me only took a short break when they came in, but in my experience it is better to take that extra few minutes to eat and I would catch up with them within fifteen to twenty minutes. Such was the case and I rejoined Paul and co. I should be more specific here, every runner who happened to be running around me at that point was named Paul. Three Pauls and an Aoife. A veritable Paul sandwich. I was feeling good and wanted to get a wriggle on so I began to stride out in front of the guys. I gained some speed running up along a stretch of fields which had a number of gates to negotiate. When I was on auto pilot I opened a gate and quickly found myself at a dead end in someone’s farm. Realising I chose the wrong way I doubled back and with thankfully only a few minutes lost, I carried on without too much annoyance. This is a particularly nice section to run, really grassy and easy on the footing. Lots of downhills made for a quick descent to the main road and then it would be just another three miles to the Dying Cow checkpoint where I would meet my sister to pace me.

A mother of four, my sister Deirdre runs her operation with military precision, no doubt a trait handed down from our meticulous father. Her New Year’s resolution was to take up running and she had certainly caught the bug. The O’Donnell competitive nature was also flowing through her veins and I was extremely glad she had agreed to share some of this journey with me. Now a seasoned 5k-er, I knew today she would have the opportunity to go above and beyond that distance, because we would be taking it somewhat slow and steady by that point. Like I have seen with many of my previous pacers, Deirdre ran more than she ever had before, amassing 27km of trail and road. There was even talk of entering this particular race next year together. The running bug was spreading and there was no way to stop it.

I spent some time tending to my blisters again at this checkpoint. The family of blisters had spread. These unsolicited, watery bastards were hijacking my feet and loving it. They were like little grenades strapped to my feet, threatening to pull the plug on the whole thing at any moment. I stabbed a few with a pin, sealed them up and hobbled out of Dying Cow. With my right hand woman by my side we trotted and chatted, and 11kms later we were suddenly at Raheenakit. We were two and a half hours early for the deadline for this checkpoint and I was pretty delighted we had so much time to play with. Michael who was manning the checkpoint gave me a giant bear hug and its power could not be underestimated. All the hugs I received that day from fellow runners, crew members and other teams were truly up-lifting. I come for the challenge of these races, but I stay for the friendship. We are a small bunch really and many I only see from race to race, but I honestly feel like they are my family. So few people understand the sport that we do and probably think we are either stupid, mad or lying about what we have done, but these folks get it. They know how much it means to get your butt across an ultra distance finish line when 99% of the world don’t.

Deirdre and I were now on our way at last to Clonegal. In about ten miles time we would be banging that Wicklow Way placard and stuffing our faces with cider and salty chips. My speed had significantly slowed down and my morale was a tad low. Ten miles is not that far, but it was feeling slightly overwhelming at that point in time. Deirdre had to coax me along as I staggered around like a drunk puppy. I have a feeling she would have loved to tie a choke chain around my neck and drag my ass along, but she remained poised and encouraging. We got in to a slow rhythm and began to make a dent in the final mileage. We rendezvoused with Lillian and her pacer Dee as they had missed a turn off. After signalling the right direction to them, all four of us began a long series of downhills. Lillian and Dee were firing on all cylinders and soon were out of sight. My third place finish soon became out of reach but we still motored on determined not to let anyone else pass us, and who knew, we might make back up some ground.

Deirdre and I chatted about everything and anything, interspersed with some silences as I figured out how to get myself to the end of this thing. The final stretch in the forest before you reach the 5km road to the finish had me frustrated. My watch had died (thanks Suunto 50 hour battery life) so I didn’t know the mileage. I noted to Deirdre that I felt like a hamster stuck on a wheel with no way off. I made her run on ahead to see if she could see the end of this tunnel of doom and sure enough I heard her scream that it was right there. Elated, I began to move faster and within a km of leaving the forest we met my brother David. The three of us shimmied our way along the main road and with only a half kilometre to go, we were greeted by the ‘Welcome to Clonegal’ sign. Straight ahead it’s possible to see the pub in the centre of the village and directly around that corner is the official finish of the Wicklow Way trail. I told my sister, let’s finish strong and we sprung in to gear. A chorus of cheers came from the beer garden to our right and as I turned the corner I could see that beautiful wooden placard which I had been dreaming of all night and day. Plenty of cheers went off as I finally became flush with the sign. 127kms crossing three counties and 19:23 hours later I had arrived. The grenades on my feet could do what they wanted at this point, all that was left was to receive my finishers trophy and do my best star fish impression on the grass. This one was special. A real family affair. Everyone there understood each other. As I reflect back on the occasion and the personal reasons I wanted to finish this race, I once again find new meaning and strength in the mantra passed down to me by my father,

‘May your moccasins make happy tracks in many snows and the rainbow always touch your shoulder.’

Barry Murray Race Report

WW Solo

I grew up in Rathfarnham so Marley Park has been my playground since I was a kid. I started playing for the local soccer club Leicester Celtic and Marley was our where we trained and where I played my first matches. When I got into running in my later teens, I used Marley as my training ground too. A Lap of the park, with a few loops through the woods, finishing at the big house and I was done. Then I got into running longer distances, and the mountains in the background always appealed to me. So I then started running up from Marley Park up around 3 Rock and Fairy Castle. Over recent years once I started properly doing ultrarunning, I was starting from the WW sign post in Marley and running out to Glendalough for a training run. A few times I ran out to Glenmalure Lodge, stayed overnight, and ran back to Rathfarnham the next day.

The first year that Jeff told me about starting an official WW race, I was delighted but was already set on running it solo, in a very vain attempt to break the record. I got up one sunny morning, felt good and decided to go out and run it alone, no support. It was a hot day; I got as far as Glenmalure, just sat in the river to cool down and called it a day. That was unofficial attempt 1.
A few months later, I attempted to run it solo, but this time from Clonegal, with a support crew this time. I was going well even though it was a wet dreary November day but took a wrong turn after Ironbridge. I had to then get a lift from a Farmer, back to the WW trail (as I had run 30mins or so off course) and then run to Glenamlure where I called it a day. Official attempt 1, failed.

The following year, again with head shakes from Jeff, I decided to run it solo but with support this time. I also decided to do it on the same weekend as the WW Race, but instead of a midnight start, I went off at 6am the Saturday Morning. I completed it, not feeling my best, but arrived in Clonegal battered and bruised in 14.45hrs. So official attempt 2, passed ! I had aimed on beating the official record time which was set by Paul Tierney in 13.46hrs, so I was well off that. However, it wasn’t until I met up with all the gang from the race to learn that Eoin Keith had just set a new record of 12.25hrs. That put me back to the drawing board !

So Marley Park, the course, the route and everything it entails are something which has been close to my heart. After returning back to live in Ireland this year I was eager to finally do the official race and put an end to Jeffs head shakes!

Arriving down to register on Friday night to my playground was a nice feeling. Even better was the still mild air and fresh breeze. Its 3rd year running, and already a big jump in the number of hardy souls lining up for it. From 9 the first year, to something like 45 this year.

It was here in the car park beside the big house that I started to “feel” the race. There is no glitz and glamour about this race and rightly so. There is no hassle, no fuss, no frills and no complications. There’s a table to sign your name and grab your number. Then there is a car with 5 sheets of paper stuck to it with the checkpoints written on it where you left your drop bags. And that was basically it. Jeff and Robbie jump up onto their cars, shout out what’s important and then we’re off.

My number one aim in all these races is to enjoy the experience. I really don’t care about what else happens. Putting pressure on yourself for an ultramarathon is the worst thing you can do. You can do it for a 5k or 10k or even something a bit longer. However, pressure for 38mins or 1.40hr is a lot different to pressure for 15 or 20hrs ! I wanted to somewhat encourage this and also help reduce the nerves of those doing such a race like this for the first time, so I suggested before the start that we all run together through the park and out the far gate. So we trotted off, everyone with the head torches lit, and made our way up through the forest and up by the golf course. It was a nice relaxed feeling, no sprinting off, no pushing and shoving, and most people were chatting so hopefully it helped to calm.

Once we exited the top gate, the line of runners started to spread out a bit. I had no intention of racing off or even worrying about who was going off ahead of me. My focus was simply to just take it easy and chat to whoever would chat to me ! This is exactly what I did up Kilmasogue and out over to Crones Woods. It was perfect running conditions too, no wind, no rain and fresh air. I was chatting to two lads John and Silvano for a bit, then the eventual ladies winner - Linda, and once we descended off Prince Williams seat, I was jogging with Thomas Kilmas who I had only just met before the race start. I was in “chatting” mood and thought that this tough looking eastern European wasn’t going to entertain me, but thankfully I was wrong !
We left the first checkpoint together, with 3 guys ahead of us and I was not worried in the slightest about my time or even who was ahead of me. I’ve learned how to just focus on the now and be present in the moment. I’m not going to get too hippy here, don’t worry, but I will get back to this.

So off myself and Thomas went up Powerscourt towards our first proper mountain, Djouce. I knew Thomas was a strong runner and has been clocking up some big mileage over the last couple of years. I was more than happy to have him as company especially since we were running in the dead of the night, when even nature is asleep. We got to the bridge crossing before the big climb up to Djouce and noticed a person standing on the side, cheering. Turns out it was a young French dude out camping for the night ! On the climb up to Djouce, we passed Ray and once up and over we got back into a steady paced run. I was starting to feel the dead of the night, it was roughly between 3-4am…. And my body was showing the first signs of fatigue.

I knew this would happen and that’s the thing you really need to accept during these ultras. Accept the pain and the hurt and go through until you come out the other side. This is where having someone else as company is important. I just stayed on Thomas’s heels for about 1hr, no talking, just running.

The first sounds from the birds helped me come round a bit. And as we passed Oldbridge , the sky was getting brighter and I even turned off my head torch.

The decent then into Glendalough was like a dream. Dawn, still air, a view of the valley with the lower and upper lakes. I started to come alive again here. Maybe also it was the familiarity with the area since I have been training a lot out here since I came home. It’s a spiritual place and I always feel good here. It’s also another area I have childhood memories from with hikes and fun days out in Clara Lara ! So I get my first real boost, my first connection with nature and surroundings, and that for me is what it’s all about.

Myself and Thomas moved fairly quickly out of the Glendalough Checkpoint. I was feeling good so I pushed the pace a bit on the fire road that goes up the never ending hill ! Thomas was starting to hit a low patch and he even mentioned about finding a nice patch of grass to take a power nap ! I kept him going and he just marched on in that undeterred fashion. Finally we reached the summit and made the long decent into Glenmalure. I love this valley too and stopped to splash my face in the river and soak it up. Another heartbreaker of a hill out of the Valley which seems to go on forever too but again myself and Thomas were working well together as a unit.

We took the exit out towards the main road and we got our first glimpse of the two ahead, Rory and Juraj. This is always an immediate boost and it picked Thomas up. We caught Rory fairly quickly who had spent almost 10hrs out in front leading the race ! So now myself and Thomas are in second but I say to Thomas that we should not rush to pass out the next guy. So we have him in sight but stay a few minutes back and get into Ironbridge checkpoint as he is leaving. Mick Hanney, Robbie and his son were manning the station, and Robbie the legend had a frying pan with superquinn sausages on the go ! Class !

This fired me up even more and I felt like my race was only starting. By the way, it hasn’t always been like this for me. I’ve felt crap in many races, for long periods of time. This was just me feeling good as a result of everything I’ve done over the several years preceding this. Anyways, I still wanted to chase down the leader with Thomas and we discussed how we would catch him over the next leg. 3mins is how far ahead he was and we knew he was from Slovakia.

So the “3min Slovak” is what we referred to him as. I had run this leg a few weeks ago as part of the Wicklow Relay with my club Glendalough AC and I knew the route well. I knew there were some very runable sections where we could put the foot down, so I did. Thomas likes his numbers, so he was telling me we were running at 4.30min/km which is fast enough after 11hrs of running ! We did this for a few kilometres and still no sign of 3min Slovak.

I started to think he had taken a wrong turn and told Thomas we are now joint first ! However, as we descended down the tractor path before the climb up through the farmers gated fields, we met a couple waiting by their car, looked like supporters. I asked them if they had seen anyone else and they said yes, “about 3mins ahead” !! So we were still in pursuit and after the short but steep climb we could finally see our 3min Slovak not far ahead. Again I started to push as I wanted to catch him before the next checkpoint. I again wanted Thomas to come with me but I could sense he just wasn’t on form. Maybe the 100km around Donadea he did 2 weeks ago in under 8hrs had something to do with it !

So after over 100km of running together through the night and early morning, Thomas told me to go on ahead and he would follow on at his own pace.

Funnily enough, I was a little hesitant about leaving him. When you run with someone for that long on the trails, through the silence and suffering, you form quite a bond. Something also in me prefers to run with another person, another mad head who is doing the same thing I am.

My race instinct did also kick into gear though and I knew that with less than 30km to go, that this was a good time to push for the lead. So off I went, and I ran pretty hard, eventually catching 3min Slovak just after the bridge at Tinahealy. He looked like he was suffering, I asked him if he was ok and I just got a shake of the head. But that’s how this game goes…. We all suffer, it’s a case of just getting on with it and doing what you can.

I wanted to take advantage of my own good form and get out of sight fast. Up and over the trails and farmers tracks took me down this lane where I saw Jeff’s car and himself pottering about. He looked at me with a bit of surprise and asked “are you first??”… I looked around and said “I guess so” !

This wasn’t an official checkpoint… just Jeff being wise as usual and implementing a simple but effective and necessary service. It’s a long leg…. A long time on the feet also up to that point, and even though the official checkpoint “dying cow” was only another 3km or so away, having Jeff there at that point was nice.

Into the Dying Cow and I was feeling pretty okay, no need for much at the checkpoint, a quick turnover and the volunteers looked after me. As I left to head up the steep road , I saw Thomas cruising in and waved. I was happy to see he had got his game on again and had passed the 3min Slovak.

Back on what was the penultimate leg, to the last checkpoint and this is where the real hurt begins. It’s more of a mental hurt too as you have come a long way, and you start to think of the end. This thought makes you think you are on the “home stretch” but it’s still a long way ! 25 or 26km… but it feels a lot longer. There is lots more road sections which I am not a fan of. However, I managed to just get into a flow state, I was feeling strong and everything I had learnt and practiced over the years was actually clicking into place.

As I ran I looked back occasionally and could not see Thomas in the distance so I knew I was opening up a big gap. After a lot of road and a darn steep climb, I arrived at the last checkpoint where a nice tall baldy guy (sorry, Michael I think ??) helped me out with my drinks and I again made a quick turnaround without hanging about much. I was told that there was a diversion ahead and to follow the tape. I did so and the bits of tape tied to branches and trees worked a treat and I was soon back on the official WW trail again. Once more, Jeff appeared at the right time, asked me if the diversion markers were okay and bided me farewell. This is what I appreciated even more with the lads, they were not only keeping it simple but they were on top of everything. Nothing more but nothing less.

So here I am, out of the last checkpoint with what is supposed to be 15km or 16km to the finish. A few more windy hilly roads and then the final heartbreaker. We are sent back onto a fire trail that involves 300-400m stretches of drags, and what seems like false summits also ! I knew that once I get through this there would be a 5km road section to the finish but it felt like I was taking forever to get to it.

Finally, I exit the heartbreak hill and get to the junction with a the sign of Clonegal 5k !

I switch into just complete focus mode and concentrated on my form and each stride. My legs are destroyed but I still actually felt good. I mean I wasn’t near any sort of “bonk” and I was able to run at a steady pace. This is something that has taken me years to develop and I could probably write a book on it and probably should ! Yet again, the guys are on the ball, Robbie arrives in the car and gives me encouragement.

Everyone who has done this knows what these last few kilometres are like. Its flat road, you are destroyed, and you know you are close to home. But it’s still torture.

Seeing the sign for Welcome to Clonegal was like a mirage. After 14hrs20mins, I had finally arrived at the place I had envisioned in my head. To be the winner was an absolute privilege. I will say though that it was all about the journey not the destination for me.

“It is the side of the mountain that sustains life, not the top. It’s here where things grow”

This is an iconic race. I’ve done lots of these races now in different countries. Wicklow is the garden of Ireland. To be able to run through this paradise was an honour. To be able to run with other like minded people and share the experience was a blessing. That all sounds a bit corny I know but its true. For Jeff, Robbie and all the volunteers to make this all happen in the way it should happen is really something special. Take a bow!